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Feb 7, 2007 07:43 PM

1st time in Paris: traditional brasserie (Balzar, Pied de Cochon, Polidor?)

If you were to pick one traditional brasserie, centrally located, for a first-timer who really isn't into food but likes basic, hearty classics to see and experience (budget is inexpensive to moderate), which would it be? If not these three, any suggestions? I'd have said Bofinger but it seems the seafood there is preferable to the "old reliables" (steak frites, onion soup, bouef bourgignon etc.) Thanks!

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  1. Ån absolute tradition for me is to go to Le Select on Blvd Montparnasse the first evening I arrive in Paris for steak tartare and a glass of Sancerre that most likely unavailable here.

    In fact, one of my favorite stories of how friendly parisiens actually are comes from my last experience there...I had been struggling over the word for 'wine key' in french, knowing that tire bouchon is the corkscrew. (I have since forgotten the word). After a broken conversation with our waiter who did not understand English, he walked back outside and handed me an extra wine key from the restaurant as a memento from Paris. Still waiting for the day when people can be that friendly here in boston.......(ok, ok, in general! ha!)

    Classic, bustling, tradtional.

    Lastly....i wouldn't consider Polidor a brasserie...more of a bistro, correct?

    1. These are three very different places.

      I have posted several times (probably ad nauseam in the view of other forum participants) of my love of the Balzar. The food is good but not great, there can be a fair amount of tourists there at any given time, and it is not spacious, but I love the ambiance, the friendliness, professionalism, sense of humor, and brisk efficiency of the waiters. When it's crowded with a good buzz going on, you can't help but feel that you are experiencing a touch of "real" Paris, however you define that term.

      I have not been to Pied de Cochon in a long time, and while it is nice and certainly atmospheric, it seemed to be turning more and more into a purely tourist destination. The disappearnce of the old market scene in Les Halles has contributed to this, I think. Between Pied de Cochon and Balzar, I would go to Balzar 98 times out of 100.

      Polidor is a very much different kind of place. Long communal tables, gruff waitresses, an extremely varied crowd -- tourists, students, regulars, bargain hunters, etc. It serves very basic classic French dishes at reasonable prices. It tends to be rowdier and you often have no choice as to whom you're sitting with (which can be very good or very bad). It is well worth a visit, but simply experiencing the place can often be as rewarding, or more so, than the food and dining.

      I used to live about 100 meters from the Select, and it is indeed a wonderful place, but it is more in the nature of a cafe that serves food than a restaurant. It is very "Left Bank," a great place to people watch, and some of their offerings are quite good. I used to eat salad nicoise with a glass of wine there about three times a week straight from work. You can linger. But I stress that it is more a cafe than a restaurant, and it (like Polidor) is by no means a brasserie.

      Bofinger isn't bad either, but, in terms of a brasserie, I find it much more sterile and impersonal than a place like Balzar.

      Finally, if you are talking about Paris brasseries, you should be aware that many of the classics, including Balzar and Bofinger, have been steadily taken over by what is known as the Flo group, and not without controversy. Many claim that Flo's ownership of these great places has changed them for the worst, and I can say that Balzar "isn't what it used to be." Flo has made some effort to preserve the original character of the brasseries they now control, and to some extent they've succeeded, but there has been slippage and homogenization. This is not to say that Balzar and the others are not longer worth going to, but rather that there is a veneer of corporate sameness to them that didn't exist before. However, this is only apparent if you knew the places before the Flo takeover and if you visit several of the Flos in succession.

      See this webpage for a list of Flo's holding, most of them very beloved classic brasseries (see right side of webpage):

      See this page for a 1998 article on the battle to preserve Balzar's soul:

      In any case, whatever you do, I'm sure you'll enjoy Paris, which should be your objective in the first place.

      1. and La Coupole is no longer what it once was...

        1. rjkaneda is spot on re Brasserie Balzar; there is a certain magic about the place. Perhaps it is the waitstaff; most have been there for years, certainly before the Flo acquisition. And yes, I hate it when they reheat the poulet roti etc. We have always been seated with locals, a nice touch compared with many restaurants which have a "special section" for tourists. Try it.

          1. I love Balzar. The food is good enough. When I am there I know I am in Paris!